Using Visual Learning to Teach Physics in a Class

ELLs to Learn Kinematics: A Phenomenological Assessment

This study aims to discover the effective methods of teaching English language learners (ELLs) the basics of kinematics in an introductory course to physics. The students chosen from a selective sample had no incoming knowledge of kinematics and their language skills were limited. The teacher utilized three different methods and tested them in a phenomenological manner, using qualitative and quantitative data to analyze outcomes. The methods employed were visual learning, mathematical learning and role play learning. The results were measured through direct observation, interview and testing results. Pre-trial tests and interviews were conducted, enthusiasm was monitored by the teacher in the class, and the post-trial assessment tests and interviews with students were also conducted. The students showed that with each introduction of a new method, their learning increased and when the three methods were combined over the course of a week, their schools and enthusiasm for the subject also increased. These findings suggest that a mixed-method approach to teaching kinematics to ELLs can have positive impact on students who had no prior knowledge of the subject.

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Helping ELLs to Learn Kinematics: A Phenomenological Assessment


Understanding physics concepts is a difficult task for most science students in general (Hake, 1998). This may be due to misconception, limited prior knowledge, or language barriers. The students in my school possessed limited prior knowledge and were impacted by language barrier. However, to address this issue, it is deemed relevant to assess the impact of teachers’ instruction; if the teacher comes into the classroom with the same type of planning, same strategies, same questions, resources and evaluation techniques, then this may bore the students. Learners need to be engaged with different ways of representation of the same concept. This idea is also intended to help learners internalize certain abstract concepts through the engagement of more than one sense at a time (Sharma, 2006).

Context of the Study

The school under assessment is Pan American International high school. I am a teacher in this school. My students are 100% Hispanic and 11th grade ELL (English Language Learner) students, and I have chosen the strongest students from 11th grade in my school. They know English but are limited in conversation skills (this is why I have chosen visual, math, and role-play methods to help them learn). They are weak in math and science (their average on state tests are 70%), they have never learned physics before, and I used after school and Saturday school time to tutor (teach) them about physics / kinematics.

Focus of the Study

My focus is using different strategies: mathematical manipulation on equations, role-play (toy cars), and visuals (smart-notebook, similar to power point) to help them achieve better grades. I used Pre-test assessments to diagnose their prior knowledge, and every student failed the test. This was not unexpected. The next step was to begin instruction using the different methods — visual, role-play and connecting each kinematics equations (4 equations) by mathematical manipulation, which will minimize my students’ need to memorize all equations (essentially, they will only need to know 2 basic equations: Distance=Average velocity x Time, and Acceleration= Changing Velocity / changing time) and will be able to derive all kinematics equations from these two.

Research Question

The question this study aims to answer is: Will ELL students learn kinematics through mathematics, role-play and visual representations?

Literature Analysis

Lopez, Rodriguez, Esteban et al. (2013) show how students achieve success in schools by learning in their own style. The researchers suggest that students should devote themselves to learning in a way that is reflective and they should use theory-based learning methods. Students who are not successful do not take this method; their devotion is superficial and they are not really engaged and do not try to challenge themselves to learn new concepts. For this reason the researchers show in their study that when failure to achieve academic success happens it is because students are not employing the right learning style for themselves or are not engaging themselves fully. This research is helpful for this study because it supports the concept of using various methods to impact the students and their ability to process the information and learn kinematics. The study asserts that “training guidance” can be helpful in giving the students the right direction to improving their abilities to master concepts in the classroom and build upon their work (p. 1361).

Tough (2012) corroborates this finding, showing that students need to be challenged in order to succeed. If they are not challenged to grow or develop they will not put pressure on themselves and will only regress or stay stagnant. Tough suggests that students need to use the determination that is inherent in them to grapple with new ideas and they also need to develop their character in order to strengthen their resolve to wrestle with concepts that are foreign to them. This is the secret to what Tough (2012) calls long-term success in the classroom. The teacher should not be afraid to push the students to explore their range and should always be open to challenging them in new and different ways to see how they are impacted.

Boyle, Duffy and Dunleavy (2003) focus their study on the ways in which students learn. They emphasize four paths to learning: reproduction-learning, application-learning, undirected-learning and meaning directed learning. Meaning-directed learning is about learning how to identify meanings and concepts. Reproduction-learning is about memorizing and reproducing the right answers. Application-learning is about learning principles and using them to solve problems. Undirected-learning is about exposing the student to various ways and ideas and allowing the student to proceed in his or her own way. The researchers found that of these four ways of learning undirected learning gave the fewest obstacles to learning while meaning-directed learning did not have a strong positive impact on success at all. The researchers show that a student’s success is determined by the student finding the way of learning that fits him or her and using that. The researchers recommend giving students choices of learning and supporting them along the way with encouragement.

Research Plan/Data Sources

The research plan involves observing the students as they interact with the subject of kinematics in the classroom via the 3 different methods of learning. I will employ the phenomenological method of research in this study, using observation methods as well as examination of direct results using testing of the students to supplement the qualitative assessment with a quantitative measure of their ability to learn, comprehend and apply knowledge of kinematics. The tests will include assessment of how well the student is able to memorize concepts, how well the student understands the concept and can explain it, and how well the student can apply the concept in a problem. These tests will be given after each session of learning method.

Interviews will also be conducted in pre-trial analysis and post-trial analysis by dividing students into two groups — those who memorize a formula and apply it but have no sense of concept and those who understand the concept and apply the mathematics to solve the problems. Students will be asked permission for their information to keep in accordance with ethical guidelines and no names will be revealed so as to protect identities (Bournot, 2005; Bonauto, 2008; Dewey, 2013)

The main method, however, is observation, because these learning methods will not be divided up into a specific focus but will be used interchangeably over the give time of the course. How the students respond to them in the classroom will be analyzed; facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, verbal expressions, mood, enthusiasm levels and interaction will all be noted by the researcher throughout. These observations will be used to give the phenomenological assessment (Morgan, 2006).

Data Analysis Methods

Analysis methods used for this study will include Likert scaling of observations and test results, of 1-5, with 1 showing little impact or improvement and 5 showing great impact/improvement. Clason and Dormody (1994) assert that “Likert scaling presumes the existence of an underlying (or latent or natural) continuous variable whose value characterizes the respondents’ attitudes and opinions. If it were possible to measure the latent variable directly, the measurement scale would be, at best, an interval scale,” (p. 34).

Also the method of data analysis that will be used to assess the phenomenon of the students’ reaction to the learning methods will be the method suggested by Lin (2013) which involved identifying common themes and patterns and using eidetic reduction to eliminate superfluous information so that the researcher can see more deeply into how students are engaging with the methods. This involves reducing “noise” by looking “between the lines” at what is happening in the students’ involvement process (Lin, 2013, p. 470). The information can then be codified and situated for clearer understanding. As Cresswell says the point of phenomenological study is “to reduce individual experiences with a phenomenon to a description of the universal essence” (Creswell, 2007, p. 58).

Impact on student learning from assessment evidence

The assessment of the tests of the students after engaging with the three learning methods shows that the method the class improved most using is the combination of all three methods used together. Each method improved the understanding of the students overall. The students showed no understanding of the scientific concepts applied in kinematics in the pre-trial test. After the visual learning method was applied, their schools increased positively by 50%. After the maths learning method was applied, their scores increase by another 25% and after the role playing method was applied, their scores increased by another 10%. When the three methods were employed simultaneously over a number of days, the cumulative score of the class was 79% out of 100% for having correct answers. This showed excellent progress over the course of the observations and a 79% increase from 0% in the pre-trial is significant.

Impact on student learning in understanding the nature of science

Students who understood the concept were visual learners and maths learners and did not benefit much from role play as there was no discernible increase in their test scores or in their manner in the classroom to indicate that they learned from role playing. The students who memorized formulas and did not understand concepts, however, benefited from role playing as their test scores increased afterwards and they showed enthusiasm for this method in the classroom and their interviews revealed that the role playing helped them to better understand the concept. They could connect what they learned visually along with the mathematical formulas to the real-world role playing exercises.

Impact on student learning on the development of conceptual understanding

Overall the three methods combined improved the students’ conceptual learning of kinematics as they were able to intertwine the visual method with the mathematics formula memorizing method plus the role playing initiative from which those who were less conceptually inclined benefited as they could see in a more demonstrative manner how the concept was applied in a real way. These findings indicate that the ways of learning described by Boyle, Duffy and Dunleavy (2003) are effective in grouping students and providing them with the necessary methodology to succeed. Each method was successful in improving the students’ scores overall and by the end of the study, every student was showing enthusiasm for every method as they became more and more familiar with them and they were encouraged to explain and discuss the subject among themselves; so in this sense the students also became the teachers and this also helped to improve their engagement, enthusiasm and academic response.

Graphic summary of the data

Verbal summary of data

The data can be summarized in the following manner: the students, via direct observation, were most enthusiastic about the learning of kinematics during the middle range of the methods implemented — that is, during the second stage of the trial. The visual method introduced them to the concept in a visual way. Students who were interviewed stated the following, “The first part help understand and the maths help to show why this was happen.” Others commented, “The science is explain in the math but with the visual showing and the role play exercise we see how it works so that helps better to understand.” Thus there was a favorable response to each method overall and the combination of methods over the week concluding the exercise produced the following responses from interviews: “I liked learning in the three ways, it help to make sense.” Others used the following words, “more interesting science,” “good to help understand,” “make sense after seeing,” and other positive responses to the combination of the three methods.

Connection between results and research question

The connection between the three methods describe a coherent story regarding the research question and show that ELLs can learn kinematics if a teacher employs visual methods of education along with mathematical methods and role playing methods.

Raw data

Test Assessments: percent out of 100

1 2-3 4-5 6-7-8 9

Student 1-48-43 63-39 73-68 81-78 84

Student 2-58-67 73-83 85-82 89-88 84

Student 3-68-79 87-93 92-95 92-91 93

Student 4-27-29 38-36 45-37 48-53 56

Student 5-46-54 55-63 67-71 72-77 79

Observations for 1st Method

Enthusiasm Frustration Questions Interaction

Student 6-3 2-4 1

Student 7-2 1-1 1

Student 8-4 1-5 2

Observation for 2nd Method

Enthusiasm Frustration Questions Interaction

Student 9-1 4-5 3

Student 10 5-1-3 5

Interviews using Likert Scale

Enjoyed 1st Meth (1-5) 2nd Meth (1-5) 3rd Meth (1-5)

Student 11 3-3 5

Student 12 4-4 5

Learned most from 1st Meth (1-5) 2nd Meth (1-5) 3rd Meth (1-5)

Student 13 5-2 4

Student 14 5-5 1

Future plans

Future plans to deepen the understanding of how ELLs can best learn scientific concepts could incorporate an undirected-method of approach that provides the information to the students and allows them to choose their engagement with the data. Another idea could be to utilize the mixed-methodology incorporated in this study and to involve a larger sample size.

The next step for implementation in this process of education will be to utilize the three methods and move on to the next lesson in kinematics to see if the students can comprehend the more advanced levels. The more abstract and conceptual the lessons become the more likely it will be that a combination of the three methods will produce positive results, especially the role playing method as this was viewed as pivotal in cementing the concept of what the students had learned in the first two methods.

Students will also be encouraged to advise the teacher as to their preferred method of learning so that time can be utilized more efficiently and a general consensus of the classroom preferences can be gathered. This will help to make the teaching more effective and efficient as the discovery process will already be accomplished and the implementation process can begin. Students may need to receive refreshers as to the different methods and the teacher may want to test the results again to ensure that there is no deviation.


Bonauto, M. (2008). The legal rights of public school students and teachers in Massachusetts. Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders: 1-26.

Bournot, M. (2005). Ethical dilemmas facing action researchers. The Journal of Educational Thought, 39(2), 197-215.

Boyle, E., Duffy, T., Dunleavy, K. (2003). Learning styles and academic outcome: The validity and utility of Vermunt’s inventory of learning styles in a British higher education setting. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 73(2): 267-290.

Clason, D. L., Dormody, T. J. (1994). Analyzing data measured by individual Likert-

type items. Journal of Agricultural Education, 35(4): 31-35.

Creswell, J. W. (2007). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing among

Five Approaches. CA: Sage.

Dewey, J. (2013). The School and Society and the Child and the Curriculum. IL:

Lin, C. (2013). Revealing the “Essence” of Things: Using Phenomenology in LIS

Research. Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Libraries (QQML), 4: 469-478.

Lopez, B., Rodriquesz, J., Esteban, P. et al. (2013). Learning styles and approaches to learning in excellent and average first-year university students. Euro Journal of Psychology of Education, 28(4): 1361-1379.

Morgan, G. (2006). Images of Organization. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Tough, P. (2012). How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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